Honorary Degree for Alan Alda

Published on 26 June 2017

Alan Alda received his honorary degree from the University of Dundee for his work promoting the importance of good communication in science.

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About Alan Alda

Yesterday Alan Alda received his honorary degree from the University of Dundee for his work promoting the importance of good communication in science.

A supporter of the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science Mr Alda opened our centre last year. During his visit to Dundee, he also took part in "an evening with" lecture where BBC4 broadcaster Dr Adam Ruderford had the opportunity to question Mr Alda on his thoughts and ambitions for science communication.

Laureation address given by Professor Dame Sue Black

Below is the laureation address given by Professor Dame Sue Black on the occasion of the award of a Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa to Mr Alan Alda on the 21st June, 2017 at the University of Dundee:

"Chancellor, I have the honour to present for the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, Mr Alan Alda.

Naively, I thought I might find and understand the man through the musings of others. In fact, the truth was hidden in plain sight and there he was, shouting it in his own inimitable style, from the pages of his own books. When the first, called ‘Never have your dog stuffed’ begins with the line – ‘My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was 6’ – then I knew I was about to embark on an exploration of fun, genius and honesty in equal glorious proportions.

As a child growing up in a community of burlesque performers he was warned to ‘notice nothing’ and being a curious and somewhat obsessive child, he in fact chose to notice and experience everything - the sight of scantily clad ladies, the sound of raucous laughter at bawdy routines, the heady smell of perfume and the soft touch of silk, satin and feathers. Every sense assaulted with a richness of detail that was imprinted indelibly on the mind of an impressionable young boy – all building towards an unconventional character who could dive deeply into the well of his personal experiences to portray his characters on stage or screen with vitality and realism.

So much of our adult personality is written in those early years of our life and his were moulded by the inconstancies of a fluid and fluctuating lifestyle, dictated by people, places and education. From a mother with challenging health issues to a Catholic school in Manhattan, military school and a remote farm to recover from polio, it was never going to be a traditional upbringing, but then he was not an average little boy either. With curiosity as his favourite teacher and a voracious appetite for books, by 8 he knew he wanted to be a writer and by 9 he knew he was going to be an actor.

A lifelong laughter addict, his singular drive in both his public and his private life has always been to give pleasure, to perform, to be a centre for attention and keep pushing to see what else he could master before he might finally fail. Being able to terrify himself made him feel alive. Harnessing and controlling such genius is a careful and lifelong challenge.

Often feeling he was competing with his Father, Alan chose his own way and it was not always easy. He was a taxi driver, a doorman, he got paid to be hypnotised in a psychiatric clinic, he hand-coloured baby pictures and he sold mutual funds. These were simply a means to pay the bills that would allow him to follow what both his heart and soul craved – performing. To control when a room would laugh and when they would stop, all the time paying attention to what others might think of as trivial and inconsequential detail.

He is a self-confessed obsessive. It is a scary world to be born with the need to live life with abandoned passion, to walk that gossamer-thin thread which separates genius from madness and even more terrifying for those who loved him and could only watch and wait. Alan’s grounding force has always been a highly talented musician, writer and photographer that he met at a party when he was just 20 years old. In March of this year, Alan and Arlene Alda celebrated their 60th diamond year of marriage. Arlene’s advice for a long and successful marriage is to have a short memory.

Gradually the bigger acting parts came and then in 1972 he read the script of a television series called MASH about the antics of the 4.0.77 th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea. He thought he might like to play the part for a little while. The adjectives would be feeble if I tried to describe the impact of Hawkeye Pierce and Arlene, I can only apologise on behalf of the entire world, because we all fell in love with your husband, just a little bit. For 251 episodes over 11 years he made us laugh, cry and think about difficult subjects from the safety of our own homes. Ironically, MASH’s run lasted 8 years longer than the Korean war, and Alan decided to end the dream in 1983 with a 2.5-hour final episode which was watched by over 125 million viewers. Actors crave success but when it comes with that level of global intensity there is a price to pay. For some absurd reason, the public lose touch with reality when faced with a celebrity. They want to touch you, hug you, push you, insult you, fight with you and love you. They want to be photographed with you and for you to sign the strangest and most outrageous personal objects. Where do you next go in a career when you have hit such global stardom? For many, it is off the deep end.

But for Alan, it was back to as much of a normality as was possible. He was a husband, he was a father, he was a writer, a director and an actor. But he was still that strangely unfulfilled curious little boy. Then in 1993, he began hosting the hugely successful series Scientific American Frontiers – a companion programme to the magazine Scientific American and he remained in this role until the series closed in 2005. It was a cornucopia of scientific abundance just waiting to be explored by this frustrated scientist who got to investigate car crash testing, experience heart surgery, climb the leaning tower of Pisa, step inside the human brain and more. Over 81 episodes, he asked questions about the world around him and its future with science, he explored the answers through his own wit and clarity and admitted freely that he had absolutely no problem appearing smarter than he really was.

In 2009, Alan joined the faculty of the School of Journalism as a visiting Professor at Stony Brook which is the State University of New York. He works actively with this centre and in 2013 it was renamed in his honour as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. It is here that current and future scientists learn how to communicate more clearly and vividly with the public – bringing together the skills in which he excels – writing, performing and communicating. He realised from his time at PBS that scientists often have really great stories to tell – it’s just that often they are pretty rubbish at doing it. Niamh and I were honoured last year when Alan agreed to record a short video for the launch of Dundee University’s Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science. In our world, the clear communication of science in the courtroom impacts on the liberty of the accused or, depending on the country in which we are operating, their life. It is not trivial or for the feint hearted. The team from Stony Brook, led by Laura, are with us in Dundee all next week as we run workshops for our scientists to hone their communication skills and we are ridiculously excited to be working with them on a project specifically designed for the communication of science in the court.

Alan has decided, and frankly who are we to disagree, that he will live until he is 106 – he is very precise. Personally, I am utterly delighted and hugely relieved because it means that we still have a quarter of a century of work, fun and chaos to unleash on an unsuspecting world. Alan, I know you are going to love Dundee because as Seamus Heaney the Nobel laureate in literature so aptly described us – we have our head in the clouds and our feet on the ground. We are the city of Discovery and you inspire us to embrace the possible whilst vehemently resisting suffocation by the practical.

Chancellor, I have the honour to invite you to confer upon Mr Alan Alda, who is the glorious sum of all of his parts, the degree of Doctor of Laws."

Notes to editors

For media enquiries contact:

Grant Hill
Press Officer
University of Dundee
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